Coet­zee’s char­ac­ter given ex­tended life

Mohlele evolves leg­endary Michael K

Sowetan - - News - ■ The book was pub­lished by Pan Macmil­lan

TI­TLE: The Life and Times of Michael K



Award-win­ning au­thor Nthikeng Mohlele never imag­ined that his fas­ci­na­tion with a char­ac­ter from a 1980s novel would blos­som into his fifth lit­er­ary of­fer­ing.

Mohlele picked up the pen from where ac­claimed South African au­thor JM Coet­zee left off by or­ches­trat­ing the evo­lu­tion of a char­ac­ter from Coet­zee’s clas­sic ti­tled The Life and Times of Michael K.

Birthed from Coet­zee’s book, Mohlele’s novel is sim­ply ti­tled Michael K.

In a re­cent in­ter­view with the Sowe­tan, Mohlele re­called how he first en­coun­tered Coet­zee’s work as a var­sity stu­dent dur­ing 1995.

Fas­ci­nated by the wartime char­ac­ter who has lit­tle re­gard for food and falls into un­usu­ally long spells of sleep, Mohlele went on to read Coet­zee’s book 30 times in 15 years.

But it never oc­curred to him that one day he would write a novel pay­ing homage to Coet­zee’s work.

“It was an or­ganic growth of artis­tic pur­suit. I never con­sciously planned to do that,” Mohlele said.

For Mohlele, the charm be­hind Michael K as a char­ac­ter is how he in­sists on liv­ing a min­i­mal­ist life in a so­ci­ety al­ways hun­gry for worldly pos­ses­sions and con­trol.

He de­scribes Michael K as a “pow­er­less but very pow­er­ful char­ac­ter”.

“It struck me be­cause the char­ac­ter lived and acted out­side of so­ci­etal norms and ex­pec­ta­tions and was an ex­treme form of an in­tro­vert,” he said.

Born in Lim­popo but raised in Tem­bisa on the East Rand, Mohlele is no stranger to SA’s lit­er­ary cir­cles hav­ing scripted ti­tles such as Small Things, Plea­sure and Rusty Bell.

Plea­sure won him a few ac­co­lades in­clud­ing the 2016 Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg main prize for South African writ­ing.

In his lat­est novel, Mohlele em­ploys a dev­as­tat­ingly beau­ti­ful ar­range­ment of prose to con­vey a com­pelling tale.

The story of Michael K is car­ried through ur­ban and ru­ral landscapes fa­mil­iar to most South Africans.

Although the task of fol­low­ing on the trail of a widely re­spected scribe might seem daunt­ing, Mohlele said he was not ner­vous about writ­ing the book.

“No, it was not nerve-wrack­ing at all be­cause I trust my craft as a writer and I be­lieved then and I be­lieve now that I knew enough about the book not to mess it up.

“It’s up to the writer who does the se­quel to mir­ror the orig­i­nal book and also give it new life in terms of en­sur­ing that the char­ac­ter evolves.”

Mohlele ex­plained that the book tack­les themes of power, beauty and in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tions. He wants the reader to make up their own mind and de­cide which mes­sage res­onates with them.

“It is very relevant be­cause of the hu­man unit. Even a sin­gle per­son changes the world.

“I’m not try­ing to tell any­one any­thing. Hon­estly, all I’m do­ing is il­lu­mi­nat­ing life as best as I see it with­out be­ing pre­scrip­tive to read­ers or any­one else,” he said.

Mohlele de­scribed his ap­proach to telling the hu­man story as one that does not dis­crim­i­nate against race or sta­tus.

He be­lieves to­day’s gen­er­a­tion of cre­ators in mu­sic, art and lit­er­a­ture are liv­ing in the midst of a re­nais­sance.

“I may sound like a bro­ken record, but it’s true. We are liv­ing through a lit­er­ary re­nais­sance that is big­ger than the Drum era,” he said.

While he is en­joy­ing the pos­i­tive re­views on his lat­est novel, Mohlele said he wants to take a break from writ­ing for at least the next five years.

Au­thor Nthikeng Mohlele is tak­ing a break from writ­ing

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